The Times on the Demise of Professional Photography

It’s an argument (or statement, at the very least) that I’ve been making for more than a decade – the wonderful advancements in camera technology have hurt the profession of photography. And, now, the New York Times has a piece that says, essentially, the same thing.

My argument has had two sides to it for years. The first is that the technical revolution, which started in the late 1980s with cameras like Canon’s T90 and Nikon’s N8008, has made it much, much easier to make technically acceptable images. Not good images, certainly not great images, but technically acceptable images. Pair that with a decreasing level of visual literacy and professional visual storytellers are in trouble – it’s easier to make an image and the standards that are acceptable have fallen. The craft is no longer important on either side.

The Times article brings up some of the ethical and sustainability issues:

“The important thing that a photojournalist does is they know how to tell the story — they know they’re not there to skew, interpret or bias,” said Katrin Eismann, chairwoman of the Masters in Digital Photography program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. “A photographer can go to a rally or demonstration, and they can make it look as though 10 people showed up, or 1,000 people showed up, and that’s a big difference. I’m not sure I’m going to trust an amateur to understand how important that visual communication is.”

“Can an amateur take a picture as good as a professional? Sure,” Ms. Eismann said. “Can they do it on demand? Can they do it again? Can they do it over and over? Can they do it when a scene isn’t that interesting?”

Ahh, there’s a question – can they do it over and over? It’s very easy to get lucky here and there, it is much harder to “get lucky” every time you bring your camera to your eye.

Edward Steichen, one of the luminaries of the photographic world, was once asked if he thought sucess in photography could be attributed to luck. His response: “Yes … but have you noticed how that luck happens to the same photographers over and over again?”

That’s because they’re professionals. Because they are prepared, not because they are lucky.

So what’s a professional to do? Well, first, be professional. Always. Make your clients know they are dealing with a professional – have your paperwork in order, show up prepared, dress appropriately, communicate well at all stages of the assignment.

And make sure that your subjects know, as well – treat them with respect, treat them fairly. Make sure they know that you do this professionally – that you make a living doing this so doing it right is important. Every person who hears that idea, that knows you’re taking this seriously, is one more person who can help support our profession.

So is it time to be depressed? No, just a little worried and a little cautious. The two hardest things about photography have nothing to do with the cameras, electronics, exposure or focus. They are where to point the camera and when to push the button, and neither of those are things technology can take care of for you. (Well, okay, Sony did make a smile-detector camera …)

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